Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Ville-Part One

Throughout the ages, tales of mystical lands and worlds have fed our imaginations like dreams from the dessert tray. Places like Shangri-La, Brigadoon, El Dorado, Xanadu and even Middle Earth allow us to escape from reality in order to cope with our every day existence and fill our lives with hope that, hey, maybe some magical kingdom really does exist.
Sometimes it does.
For me, that place was Pollardville.
That's right, it's time to turn on the golden bulb of nostalgia again and bask in its glow as we gallivant down Memory Lane.

Below are some excerpts from the introduction of my book, Now THAT'S Funny.

"My favorite TV show of all time is The Dick Van Dyke Show. Other than the fact that the show is an acknowledged classic, one of the things that always appealed to me was Rob Petrie’s job as a comedy writer. Now, that seemed to be a perfect profession for me. Not only would I be able to create comedy all day long, but I’d have a lot of laughs in the process. Of course, the icing on Rob’s cake was that he was able to go home every night to the young Mary Tyler Moore. Woof!

I was able to live part of that dream for a while during my time at a magical land called Pollardville, the kingdom that fried chicken built. Located just outside Stockton, California on Highway 99, Pollardville began as the Chicken Kitchen, a take-out restaurant specializing in deep fried poultry. Years later, the Pollards acquired some buildings and sets from the William Wyler film The Big Country starring Gregory Peck, which had been filmed in the area. They schlepped these down the road virtually intact and stuck them behind the Chicken Kitchen to create the Pollardville Ghost Town, a roadside attraction complete with western stunt shows and train ride. Another building they purchased later was part of an old warehouse from a nearby cannery, which they converted into the Pollardville Palace, a dinner theater that served chicken (naturally) for audiences to munch on while watching stage shows consisting of old time melodramas and vaudeville. A few years down the road, the outside of the building had an entire makeover when it was remodeled into a riverboat facade to became the Palace Showboat Dinner Theater.

My own saga began in my teenage years out in the Ghost Town. I was a full-fledged weekend cowboy, robbing the not-quite-full-scale train and performing in the aforementioned western stunt shows and gunfights on Main Street. It was a great comedic training ground for I was able to create and perform several different characters, test the
improvisational waters and even write my own material.

After many seasons, I finally hung up my spurs and graduated to the college course known as Palace Showboat 101, which I attacked with a vengeance. It was within those hallowed halls that I was able to do everything I ever wanted to do in show business-act, write, direct, stand-up comedy-EVERYTHING! (Well, everything except make a decent living wage, but that’s another story) If Disneyland hadn’t already claimed it, I would have dubbed Pollardville at that influential point in my life “the happiest place on the face of the earth”.

Now the Pollardville show formula was quite simple. First up was the melodrama, a modernized version of the archaic theater form. These were your basic audience participatory CHEER the Handsome Hero, BOO the Dastardly Villain and AWWWW with pathos with the Helpless Heroine scenarios. Following intermission was the olio or vaudeville section, basically a mini-revue with song and dance numbers and lotsa comedy.

Many of the sketches and blackouts (quick gags) in the Palace Showboat productions were rehashes of classic old bits from vaudeville and burlesque shows from what seemed to be from the Dawn of Time. One could never argue their effect on audiences because they ate ‘em up with a spoon. But, being young, impetuous and thinking that I knew it all, I had to try to come up with new material to call my own. After all, I had co-authored an original melodrama for the Palace Showboat a couple of years before entitled LaRue's Return or How's a Bayou? with my best friend, Edward Thorpe. It was pretty well received and good enough to be revived a few years later.

So, I dove in head first, hitting my head on the bottom of the pool a few times, but eventually able to write and direct my own show within a year’s time. In fact, I almost pulled an Orson Welles by writing an original melodrama, The Legend of the Rogue and writing/directing the second half of that production entitled Life is a Cabaret. That would have been quite a feat if I didn’t get in so far over my head that I couldn’t even call for help. Of course, pride had a lot to do with that near debacle. I thought I could do it all. Ah, the arrogance of youth. After some re-tooling, the show came off well, but it took a couple of years-and several slices of humble pie- before I tried to pull off one of those again..

As far as the material I wrote, I believe my own success rate was not too shabby. My instincts for what an audience might go for were usually dead-on. In my shows, I didn’t write everything. I’d spend hours at the library in those days before the Internet researching material. I’d scan old joke books, even sketch collections like this one. But, those were just filling in the blanks for my own material. I think the ratio of what was used as opposed to what was cut or unproduced was about 3-1. Not bad.

Of course none of these would have ever worked at all without the talented actors known as the Palace Showboat Players. Without a doubt, these were collectively the finest group of performers I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. Oh, we were a motley crew to be sure and fiercely protective of what we did at the Ville. Many in the community looked down their noses at us because we weren’t doing serious theater. Yeah, well, how many times can the average theatergoer sit through Our Town anyway? Maybe our shows had a certain unsophisticated quality about them, but they were as legitimate as anything anyone else in the so-called theater community was staging at any given moment. We crammed more into one show than many companies did in an entire season and I would have stacked our actors against any of theirs anytime anywhere. Those nay-sayers rarely saw what we were up to on our stage, not daring to darken our doorsteps during any of our runs. When we gravitated in their direction after the Ville closed, they saw what we were all about and eventually had to eat their damn words. That was fun to watch for it was another case of history repeating itself. Performers in the early days of vaudeville were also treated as second class citizens until they drifted over to the Broadway stage and the American theater scene would not have thrived without them.

Here's to that group of scalawags, rapscallions and n’er-do-wells known as the Palace Showboat Players and to the patron saint of comedy itself, the chicken.

Forever may it cluck."

Unfortunately, the cluck has run out. Soon, like Brigadoon, Pollardville will disappear into the mist and exist as only a memory. Neil Pollard is closing up shop for good this year-lock, chicken stock and barrel. It's all going away for good. By this time next teay, a housing development will sit where the Ville stands now.

The Grand Finale has begun. I headed down there next week for this one last blow-out. There's going to be a few tears, a lotta laughs and one last howl at the moon.

To Be Continued

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